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Computer Inventor Dead At Age 85

December 19, 1995

BERLIN (AP) _ Konrad Zuse, whose Nazi-era constructions of second-hand sheet metal, glass plates, cranks and punch cards helped pioneer the modern digital computer, has died at age 85.

Zuse (pronounced ZSOO-zah) died Monday of heart failure at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Huenfeld in the western state of Hesse, town officials said.

A Berlin-born engineer and lifelong tinkerer, Zuse created a series of machines in the 1930s and early 1940s that were among the world’s first calculators and computers.

Though his machines were crude, they embraced the same binary digital concept that is the basis for today’s computers. Zuse said he built the machines to relieve the tedium of mathematical calculations in his job as a structural engineer at an aircraft manufacturer.

``He was far ahead of the rest of the industry,″ said Peter J. Deuflhard, president of a Berlin computer research institute named after Zuse.

Fame and recognition largely eluded Zuse because he was German and his pioneering work came under Hitler’s dictatorship. Still, an early recognized patent holder for a computer invention, Howard Aiken of Harvard University, acknowledged in 1952 that his research had lagged behind Zuse’s.

Zuse’s first fully automated, program-controlled computer, the Z3, was finished in 1941 with funding from the Third Reich’s Aviation Research Institute. It was destroyed by Allied bombing.

``It was my fate to continue my work,″ he said in a profile published in Information Week last year. ``But I wasn’t certain if my work would survive the fighting.″

His more powerful Z4 computer barely did. The Nazis ordered the one-ton machine out of Berlin and to the underground Harz mountain chambers, where scientists were building V1 and V2 buzz bombs. It was later hidden in a small village in Bavaria.

Zuse moved to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1945. Five years later, the Z4 was installed at the Federal Polytechnical Institute, where Zuse was doing research.

At the end of the war, computing devices created in the United States, particularly the ENIAC machine at the University of Pennsylvania, received a great deal of attention. There were also early computing devices at Iowa State University, Harvard University and Bell Laboratories.

``After the war, news of American devices caused quite a stir,″ Zuse told Information Week. ``The world knew nothing of my work nor of the work of others here, and so the impression grew that the computer was an American invention.″

In 1947, IBM contacted Zuse about his patents. He said he wanted to continue his development work but IBM wasn’t interested in helping out.

So Zuse formed his own company two years later, Zuse KG, to build and market his designs. He registered some 50 patents and counted Zeiss Optics and Remington Rand as customers.

He sold the firm to Siemens AG in the 1960s and became a consultant to the firm. In his later years, Zuse continued to tinker with inventions but devoted most of his time to oil painting.

Zuse was born on June 22, 1910, and graduated in 1935 from Berlin’s Technical University with a civil engineering degree. Reconstructions of his first computers are on display at Berlin’s Museum of Transport and Technology and at the German Museum in Munich.

He is survived by his wife, Gisela, and four children: Horst, Monika, Hannelore and Peter. A son, Ernst, died in 1979.